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What Makes A Good Protagonist?

Old Warrior by sandaraFrom the humble page all kinds of fantastic characters can spring to life: dashing heroes, devious villains and everything in between. But only a few of these creations will reach the elite position of main character. A good central protagonist is the core of the story, it doesn’t matter how spectacular the world is, or how great the plot, if the protagonist is bland or poorly constructed then it can easily ruin an otherwise great story. Long-time readers will happily argue for their favourites as the best protagonist, but this article will look at the parts of writing craft that help create them.

The first thing to address is the voice of the character, whether it’s first or third person the character’s voice and personality should come through in narration. The protagonist of your novel needs presence and there is no better way to accomplish that than having every line reflect their nature. How you describe the world, interactions with others, the very substance of the story, how would the character say it, not the writer? Do they talk about an extravagant palace with a sneer in their voice for the waste of wealth? When danger strikes are they cool and witty, or panicked and frightened? When they walk down the street what would the protagonist notice first? The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris is a great example, the attitude of the trickster god comes across in every page; whether he’s discussing the failings of the other gods, or regaling the reader with his own misadventures, you get a strong sense of personality from the language.

Apprentice Sorcerer - Applibot by Yohann Schepacz OXAN STUDIOA good voice should be interesting to read in of itself, capable of turning a mundane task like getting dressed into something you’d want to reader about. It should be suited to the character’s nature and colour the narrative with attitude. You also want to make it something different, unique to your work, whether it’s a peppy heroine or morose bureaucrat, not just some generic barbarian hero type. This kind of method requires us to be close to the protagonist, it’s obviously more difficult if you’re using omniscient narration, the writer will have to work harder to express their character’s voice through observation of events. There is also the stylistic choice of giving the narrators voice personality or keeping it dispassionate, but this is separate to the protagonist.

The next important aspect is motivation, why does the protagonist do what they do? Are they driven by a raging desire for justice or vengeance? Do they have a sworn duty to follow, or are they just trying to survive? Again, motivation can colour everything a character does and is an essential part of their makeup. It can affect how the reader sees the protagonist, how we feel about them, and whether we support them or not. The reader needs to believe in the character, to believe in their actions and their reasons for them. Having a hero who is noble for its own sake, or because the story requires him to be will make a poor protagonist. A protagonist needs motivations that make sense in terms of their back-story, that fit with their character and that provide the opportunity for excitement in the narrative.

Fetch by Ross TranFor example, the character’s motivations could cause a conflict in the plot, if your protagonist’s motivation is to stop a villain because he’s cruel, what happens when they are forced to make hard choices to achieve their goal? Would they be willing to lie, cheat and steal to complete their task, how far can they fall until they’re no better than the person they’re trying to bring down? This will add complexity to the plot and depth to your protagonists, making them more interesting to the reader. In terms of the reader’s relationship think about Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, while not a moral character his actions in the novel are motivated by threats of death and imprisonment. It is therefore harder to judge the character than if his actions were based upon simple greed. Or take Azoth from Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, do we forgive him more because of his hard life, making the choice to become an assassin to get out of the slums? Every action has a motivation, and even in the strange world of fantasy, the reason can be more interesting than the act itself.

Magi by mattforsythAnother important factor is balance, dealing with the amount of power your protagonist wields and their ability to influence the world. A main character must have agency, they must be able to act on the world or they will just get carried along with the story. While there are exceptions to the rule, bystanders usually don’t’ make good protagonists. Equally your protagonist can’t be too powerful, it will remove the challenge to the character, or force the author to keep coming up with excessive situations to challenge them. There must be a balance of danger vs. ability, that is what creates the conflict and what propels the story.

It can be tempting to make your protagonist very powerful, you want an action hero and you want them to be awesome, but they don’t need to be omnipotent. A character doesn’t have to be unbeatable to be great, it can be their limitations which give rise to the best writing. China Mieville’s Iron Council features a character described as ‘the most potent golemist in Crobuzon,’ it is an interesting skill and serves the character well, but while Judah uses this skill to great effect, it does not make him invincible and so the danger remains. He is forced to find inventive ways of using his talent to hold off a vastly superior force, and the narrative is far better for the struggles he faces, that if Judah had simply blasted his foes to pieces.

shadowrun Dwarf by Perun-TworekEvery story is a journey and so watching the development of a protagonist can be an integral part of the narrative. Not all stories require development or major change to the character, some characters are lovable because they always consistent – characters in a long series for example. But having a protagonist undergo a dramatic change can be a story in itself; it could be a struggle for redemption or a fall into damnation. It could be part of the greater plot or a personnel side note for the character. The reader has a close link with the protagonist, able to see into their deepest thoughts and feelings, it provides the opportunity to tell their stories in more detail than any other medium, the author should take advantage of that to show the heart of their protagonist.

If you’re writing an epic story, full of hardship, adventure and romance it’s only natural that it should change your characters. Showing the protagonists development and growth can add to the realism of the work as well as getting the reader to engage with the character. Malekith by Gav Thorpe details the fall of an elf prince, and while the reader knows it’s coming the fascination is watching it happen by degrees, the way it develops is as much part of the story as any of the plot points.

Wall of Woe by MuYoung KimA good protagonist is a character that readers will remember, even above all the conflicts and mayhem that might be going on, their presence should fill the novel and engage the reader. Their actions and identity should form part of the narrative, if you could swap your main character with another and have the story proceed in exactly the same way then the protagonist isn’t having enough impact. The main character is the heart of the novel, make it their story.

What are some of your favourite protagonists, what makes them great? Comment below.

Title image by MuYoung Kim.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Justin says:

    The Guiles from Light Bringer, Kaladin from Stormlight. Along with the plots of both series being amazing, the characters truly make it so.

  2. Avatar Yora says:

    I really quite like all the main characters of the Witcher series. Though hard to pin down why.
    I guess part of what I like about them is that they have personal motivations and always act in ways they think will get them there. They have personal ideals, but they are far from idealistic and have no illusions about other people following or caring about them. Many of them are quite strong and powerful compared to regular ruffians, but they all know when they are outmatched or outnumbered and don’t try any foolish heroics. They are outstanding people, but they still feel a lot more like actual people than most characters in fantasy. They have limits and no delusions about that.

  3. Avatar Scott says:

    Who couldn’t love Hiro Protagonist from Neal Stephenson’s brilliant novel Snow Crash? Linguistics, hacking, corporations run amok in modern United States. It’s an excellent read with deep plots and rich characters.

  4. Avatar Ryan says:

    Drizzt from R.A. Salvatore’s long-running Forgotten Realms series. Humble, reluctant, yet perfectly capable of handling any threat against him or his friends. Plus he has Guenhwyvar at his side, a great companion.

  5. Avatar Diego says:

    Hey, I love this site, but I don’t know what’s going on that I can’t download the articles in pdf, it says it is an error on the server. I’d love if you could help me. Thanks!

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